1: “This makes no sense at all,” Jocko Willink writes in Extreme Ownership.  

The mission statement from higher command was clear.  His elite Navy SEAL team would be required to execute their assignments “by, with, and through Iraqi security forces.”

Jocko and the rest of Task Unit Bruiser were stationed in Ramaldi, the epicenter of Iraqi insurgency, doing battle with hardcore mujahideen fighters determined to kill as many Americans as possible.  Attacks from the insurgents were up 300 percent.  The situation felt like a downward spiral.

Jocko was angry and frustrated.  The senior military leadership did not understand the reality on the front lines and the Iraqi soldier’s true lack of capability.  “The competent and capable Iraqi soldier was the rare exception, not the rule…  Young enlisted Iraqi soldiers’ primary goal was survival, not victory. Physically, they were weak,” Jocko observes.  “Tactically, they were dangerous and unsound, regularly violating basic safety procedures.”

Even worse?

“Every so often, reports surfaced of Iraqi soldiers who turned their weapons on their U.S. Army or Marine Corps advisors,” Jocko notes.  “With that knowledge, how could trust be built?” 

The situation was challenging and dangerous.  “I didn’t believe it was smart,” Jocko notes.  “I didn’t believe it would be successful. To imagine a firefight alongside Iraqi soldiers with such inferior training and questionable loyalty seemed outrageous, perhaps even suicidal.”

2: Stop, Jock told himself.  As the unit leader, he understood he had to change his perspective.  He challenged himself to look at the bigger picture and see the situation from a strategic level, “as if I were one of those generals in Baghdad or back at the Pentagon.” 

Then he had an insight: “How can we prepare the Iraqi soldiers to handle security in their own country?” Jocko asked.  “If the Iraqis never reached a level of skill at which they could defend their country from terrorist insurgents, then who would defend it?  The answer was all too clear: us, the U.S. military.”

Suddenly it all made sense:  “We would be stuck securing their country for generations.”

When Jocko’s SEAL teams “learned they would be allowed to conduct combat operations only alongside Iraqi soldiers, they were livid and completely against the idea,” Jocko writes. “This is garbage,” they said.

Jocko cut their protest short: “Let me ask you something,” he said raising his voice: “If the Iraqi military can’t get to a point where they can handle security in their own country, who is going to do it?”

The room fell silent. 

“Like you, I understand that no matter how much we train them, the Iraqi Army will never come close to achieving the standards we set for ourselves.  But we will help them get better,” Jocko challenged his soldiers.

“And there is something else we can do to help them,” he continued.  “We will destroy the enemy on the streets of Ramadi to reduce the insurgents’ military capability and lower the level of violence.  When the enemy is beaten, then the Iraqi Army can take over security duties for themselves.”

Heads in the room began to nod.  “But to do that,” he said, “we have to get each mission—each operation—approved.  And if we want our missions approved, we must have Iraqi soldiers with us on every operation.  Does anyone not understand this?”

They understood.

3: Looking back, Jocko knew if he “expressed doubts or openly questioned the wisdom of this plan in front of the troops, their derision toward the mission would increase exponentially. They would never believe in it.  As a result, they would never commit to it, and it would fail. 

“But once I understood and believed, I then passed that understanding and belief on, clearly and succinctly, to my troops so that they believed in it themselves.  When they understood why, they would commit to the mission, persevere through the inevitable challenges in store, and accomplish the task set before us.”

A profound lesson in leadership.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: As a leader, have I ever received an assignment or a direction I did not agree with?  How did I react?  What happened as a result?

Action: Journal about the questions above.  Write about what I will do, the next step when this situation arises.

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